The Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45 will be making a 50th anniversary appearance at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, next month. Recently, my wife and I sat down with Akira Otsuka, mandolin player with this groundbreaking international band.
In the post-World War II period, American culture and music became increasingly popular in Japan. By the late 1960s, bluegrass had been taken up by what amounts to cultural clubs at Japanese colleges and schools, with adherents learning acoustic instruments and practicing their English as well as imitating Southern accents. While some might have viewed this development as copying, such an ethnocentric view didn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny when the Watanabe brothers, Toshio and Saburo, joined with the Otsuka brothers (Josh and Akira) to form Bluegrass 45. Akira started playing the mandolin when he was 15, since it was the only bluegrass instrument left unplayed among the group forming the band. They played at a club called Lost City in Kobe, Japan, and were chosen to perform at the World’s Fair held in that city in 1970.
Sab Watanabe Inoue still publishes the Japanese bluegrass magazine Moonshiner, founded in 1983. He was recognized by the IBMA as Print Media Person of the Year in 1998 and served several terms in different roles on the IBMA board of directors.
Bluegrass 45 released their first CD in 1970. Dick Freeland, founder of Rebel Records, “discovered” Bluegrass 45 and brought them to America, where they first appeared at the 1971 Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival. Bluegrass 45 may have been the only group in bluegrass history to end up on the Grand Ole Opry “as a part of their inaugural tour,” according to Eurgen Chadbourne, writing in AllMusic. You can see a marvelous film made at this festival here; meanwhile, below is a clip from it featuring Bluegrass 45’s performance:
An excellent account of the role of bluegrass in contemporary Japan called “Land of the Rising Sound” appeared in the Spring 2016 Roots & Branches issue of the print No Depression written by Denis Gainty and posted online in March of this year. Readers interested in examining the bluegrass experience at festivals and other events in contemporary Japan should read it.
During Bluegrass 45’s first U.S. tour, the band members stayed for a few days at Freeland’s home in Hyattsville, MD. Let Akira tell the next part of the story: “Next morning, Dick told us John and Nancy Duffey were coming for dinner, but I thought he was kidding because he knew how much we admired John. Well, John and Nancy showed up; we had dinner and then we started jamming. Believe it or not, we knew every single song that John had recorded with the Country Gentlemen – Sab could play Eddie Adcock-style banjo, Josh knew all the vocal parts of Charlie Waller, and I could play all the mandolin breaks exactly like John had recorded (them). I can say our good relationship started that first night we met.” Later, Akira would go to the Red Fox Inn and the Birchmere every week. Sometimes he filled in mandolin, guitar, or bass. He accompanied the band to Japan in 1985 and 1991 acting as road manager, translator, sound man, and tour guide. Sometimes he recommended songs for them to record, and he spent many Sundays at Duffey’s house watching Redskin games. He writes about bluegrass and recording technology as well as in the bluegrass magazine of record, Bluegrass Unlimited.
John Duffey was also a luthier. He made two mandolins dubbed “Duck” because of their appearance, the second one for Akira. One only needs to listen to Akira playing Duck 2 in the video series below to realize what a fine mandolin player he was and is. Akira’s four-part video called “Duffey’s Mandolins” describes his relationship with Duffey and how he came to own the Duck and Duffey’s F-12, which Duffey played for years with the Seldom Scene. It’s a moving and insightful view of both the great American mandolin player and Akira. Here’s the first one, and, if you watch them straight through, they will follow automatically through the four-part series.
Bluegrass 45 has continued to make reunion performances through the years, even though its members are separated by geography and busy with ongoing careers. Here they are performing the Seldom Scene song, “What Am I Doing Hanging Round?” at Chicken George in Kobe, Japan, on Nov. 11, 2009. The song was written by Michael Martin Murphy and recorded by the Monkees. Bluegrass 45 first played it in 1971, while the Scene recorded it several months later.
Bluegrass 45 is scheduled to perform during Wide Open Bluegrass at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh on Saturday, Sept. 30, at 2 p.m. All six original members will be performing:
Tsuyoshi “Josh” Otsuka – lead vocal, guitar, leader, arranger
Akira Otsuka – mandolin and vocal
Toshio Watanabe – bass
Saburo “Sab” Watanabe Inoue – banjo and vocal
Hsueh-Chieng “Ryo” Liao – fiddle and vocal
Chien-Hua Lee – rhythm guitar and vocal